UNIVERSITIES don’t get enough qualified applicants from Scotland’s poorest communities to meet tough access targets, according to a new report.

Figures from Universities Scotland, which represents principals, show only 15 per cent of applications in 2017 came from the poorest postcodes.

The Scottish Government has set a target for the sector for 20 per cent of students to come from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods by 2030 - known as SIMD 20 applicants.

Ministers expect universities to lower entry grades for deprived students, but Universities Scotland said the move would still not create sufficient applicants.

Read more: Plans to lower university entry grades for poorer students

A written submission to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee said: “The most pressing shared challenge is to increase the proportion of people from the most deprived backgrounds who choose to apply to university and have the qualifications to do so.

“It is essential that universities’ actions to widen access happen in parallel with significant growth in the overall number of applicants with the attainment level needed to succeed at university if Scotland is to meet the access ambitions for 2030.

“Otherwise, Scotland risks a situation whereby SIMD 20 students simply make different choices about which institutions in which to study without actually, or significantly, increasing the number of SIMD 20 students as a whole.”

Universities went on to warn the system was already over-subscribed with well-qualified applicants from other socio-economic backgrounds and called for a cash windfall from Brexit to be reinvested in universities.

The move is possible because EU students are currently funded from the public purse, but will have to pay fees once the Brexit process is complete. 

The submission states: “Brexit provides Scottish higher education with an opportunity, which is to maintain a proportion of the funded places currently available to EU-domiciled students for exclusive use by Scots.”

Read more: Brexit may ease pressure in bid to widen access

Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister said the government was investing £750 million over the course of the current parliament to support schools in raising attainment – but called for universities to "pick up the pace" on implementation.

She said: "It is clear our higher education system isn’t delivering the fairest outcomes and we can and must improve. That’s why we have set ambitious targets.

"Universities cannot simply sit back and wait for students to come to them. They must do all they can to increase the number of applicants by promoting the opportunities available."

Mary Senior, Scotland official for the UCU lecturers’ union, said it was right that the targets set for the sector were challenging because of the need to make more progress.

She said: “Universities and the whole sector will need to redouble our efforts to create a culture where students from non-traditional university backgrounds feel higher education is for them.

Read more: Plans to lower university entry grades for poorer students

Jodie Waite, vice president of student body NUS Scotland, added: “If those from poorer backgrounds are to have an equal chance of applying to university in the first place, we need to see action at all levels of our education system.

“Why are so many institutions falling so spectacularly short when a significant, albeit not big enough, portion of applicants come from poorer backgrounds?”